The Council of Chalcedon--Request for Clarification

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The following is an excerpt from the decree of the Council of Chalcedon on the nature of Jesus:

from the Decree of the Council of Chalcedon

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity;. . .

The part that puzzles me is begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity. Is this to say that Jesus is not Coeternal with the Father, that the Trinity was somehow "assembled" at some point, or is the chief point here sometihng else? If Jesus were begotten before all ages, on whom or by what mean was he begotten? Was this phraseology cleared up later?

I stumbled across this passage as the first thing in a new book by Michael Casey, a monk from Australia whose work has captivated me. The book Fully Human, Fully Divine: an Interactive Christology intrigued me both in title and in description. I bought it and immediately fell into this particular hole. I don't think it is any big deal, but it was a point that caught my attention. And so, I thought I'd ask the knowledgeable crew of St. Blogs what might have been meant by this mysterious phrasing. Thanks in advance for any help you can give.

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Dear Steven,

In Chalcedonian Christology, the divine hypostasis (person) of the Son exists eternally with the Father ("begotten before the ages from the Father") and in the Incarnation ("these last days") assumes humanity, uniting it inseparably and eternally to his divinity. There simply isn't an independent human hypostasis of Jesus of Nazareth that is in any way separate from the divine Son that is "begotten before the ages from the Father."

A couple of article in the 1989 St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly are, I think, rather helpful. I'll excerpt a couple paragraphs:

"The traditional doctrines of Christ worked out by Chalcedon and the early councils are labeled today as a 'high Christology,' or a 'decending Christology.' This classical approach to the doctrine of Christ uses as its springboard the pre-existent Logos, who, at one point in the history of the world descended from on high to take upon Himself our humanity. By assuming our flesh and the very condition of our life, the Incarnate Son accomplishes the true human destiny that Adam and all his descendents failed to achieve. This school of Christological thought is well-represented by the Gospel of John, Paul's letters, and the School of Alexandria. The fundamental, rock-bottom foundation of a Christology 'from above' is belief in the pre-existent Logos." (Fr. Gregory Havrilak, "Chalcedon and Orthodox Theology Today")

The question, then, is whether this identification of the person of Jesus Christ with the pre-existing Logos does justice to his humanity. In the same issue, Fr John Breck argues that it in fact does:

"Rather than measure Christ's divinity by the norm of our humanity ('theology from below'), we can only grasp the mystery of the incarnation of the pre-exstent Logos, and understand the meaning of that incarnation for our salvation, insofar as we measure our humanity by the norm of His divinity. The Word 'became flesh,' but only to realize the full potential of that 'flesh' for participation in divine life.

"This means, however, that the Word must remain essentially divine in His incarnation. The Subject of the incarnate hypostasis must therefore be divine, in order to restore humanity to its authentic condition determined by its participation in the divine energies. Accordingly, the destiny of each human hypostasis, through sacramental incorporation into the Body of the God-Man, is to become itself a 'god-man,' whose subject is 'deified' by the divine energies. ...

"Soteriology, then, concerns the saving work of GOd-in-Christ to accomplish within each human hypostasis the process of theosis. Accordingly, to be properly understood, anthropology - like Christology - must be conceived and formulated 'from above;' for humanity is 'true' or authentic only insofar as it reflects, bears, and participates in the divine life of the Triune GOd. 'Do not wonder that I said to you: You must be born from above (anothen).' (John 3.7)" ("Reflections on the 'Problem' of Chalcedonian Christology")



Dear Neil,

I think you have addressed a slightly different question than the one I am interested in. Let me try to rephrase:

The council of Chalcedon states "begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity." Now, I read this to mean that the divine part of Christ's full duality was ALSO begotten--just as the human part was begotten. If this is so, then it would imply that Christ is not coeternal with the Father because He is, at one point begotten which implies a beginning, not an eternity. Moreover, it begs the question of how this "begetting" occurs if God is all there is.

I'm think that the solution lies in perhaps a different meaning of begotten with regard to the divine and the human. The human person of Christ was begotten after the fashion of human begetting except with a Divine Father. I must infer that this is not what the verb "begotten" means with respect to the divine nature of Christ's person.

Have I made more clear what is actual confusing me? I have no problem witht he duality of Jesus's nature or the classical teaching of Chalcedon. I'm just mystified by how an eternal tripartite being begets part of Himself outside of eternity.



Then there' the Holy Spirit *proceeding* from both (as we westerners say).

I'll botch this, but the explanation I remember is that the Son is God's self-knowledge, necessarily infinite and perfect, so perfectly imaging the original that it is God himself. The Holy Spirit is the love each has for the other, necessarily infinite and perfect. God simply *is*, three persons, one nature (as you don't dispute, of course) - there isn't a time when the Son and Spirit were not.

In the Creed I've always taken "begotten" to refer to the "origin" of Christ's divine nature in God outside time, while "made" refers to creaturely begetting. Kids are yelling, gotta run,.

If the Son is "begotten before the ages," then He's not actually begotten *before* anything, since "before" implies a time frame, which implies an age.

The problem is that theology, even at an ecumenical council, is done by and for time-bound humans. (One of my conceits is that the dogma of the Trinity is only difficult for us to grasp because we can't say "the Father," "the Son," and "the Holy Spirit" at the same instant.)

I've never thought of "begotten" as in itself implying that someone was begotten upon. Obviously, when used of human fathers and sons, there's a mother involved somehow, but the "on whom" aspect arises from the context, not the concept itself.

The etymology is sort of interesting: "Old English bigietan to beget, Latin prehendere to seize, grasp, Greek chandanein to hold, contain."

Dear Steven,

You're absolutely right; I misread your original post. I'm very sorry and hope that you weren't at all insulted by my original answer. You ask a really difficult question, but I'll try to come up with a response.

We can begin by noting that we must always speak of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in relationship, not as merely existing alongside one another, lest we end up seeing them as isolated monads or as parts of a whole. Fr Dumitru Staniloae: "The divine love and happiness of God consist in the fact that in God an 'I' which is the all contains other 'I's which are also the all, and that each of these 'I's contains the other. These 'I's do not encounter one another from the outside as is the case with human 'I's. From eternity they are completely interior to one another just as human 'I's aspire to become." Each divine "I" sees himself in relationship with the others, and we can speak of a circular movement, a cicumincessio.

The difficulty, as you point out, is that we can't imagine a human relationship that is without a temporal beginning and end - we cannot imagine a human relationship that, through perfect humility and sacrifice, is so bound up with existence that it leaves both partners perfectly consubstantial. Our word "begetting" is itself tainted with the sin of individualism.

Staniloae again, more directly about "begetting":

"The meaning of the divine begetting goes beyond any human power of understanding. But although the begetting of the Son conforms to the will of the Father, it is necessarily bound up with his divine existence, for it is only by communicating this existence to the other 'I' that God the Father can possess the full joy of the plenitude of divine existence. God cannot be happy except as Father and Son. St Basil the Great says that it is good for the Father to have a Son and that, as God, he cannot therefore be without such a good. Nevertheless, the Son is not begotten of the Father without the Father's will but in conformity with it. For the Father cannot not will what is such an essential good for himself. In conformity with the eternal correspondence of this good with the divine existence and with the eternal will of the Father's 'I,' a will which corresponds to his own Godhead, the Son is begotten from all ages. Again St Basil: 'The good is eternally in God who is above all; but it is good that there be a Father of such a Son. Hence this good is never wanting to him, nor does he wish to be Father without the Son. Now he is not without power when he wills, and inasmuch as he both wills and has the power it is natural that he possesses the Son eternally, because eternally he wills the good.' The Son comes forth from the 'being of the Father' not, as is the case with creatures, from his will. But at the same time he is begotten of the Father in accordance with his will. The divine being is absolutely free existence. Even the love between the divine Persons can only be conceived 'in the context of freedom,' but clearly, this freedom is in harmony with that good which is the divine existence or 'being'."

So, the point of saying that the Son is "begotten before the ages from the Father" is to express that Father and Son are always in relationship, but that this relationship comes directly from the "being of the Father" - there is simply no Divine will prior, outside, or behind this act of Love that is the Father's begetting of the Son and the Son's taking birth from the Father.

There are metaphors to help us consider this eternal begetting - Bill White's written about the Son as God's self-knowledge, since in thinking we can somewhat duplicate ourselves without being split in two. I suspect that we are still left with the concession that this goes "beyond any human power of understanding."

Thanks again.


Greetings Steven!

Here's my take.

First, we need to remember that God is the creator of time itself, and "eternity" refers to a state where past and furure do not exist.

Second, the fathers of the Church often used an analogy for the notion of God the Father the Father "begetting" the Logos that I think is somewhat helpful. They compared it to the heat and light emmanating from a flame - a simultaneous occurrence.

In my own speculations, I tend to think where we get confused is trying to imagine what it was like to be the Logos before the incarnation in temporal terms. Since there is no time in eternity, this is sort of a nonsense question, like asking what the color blue taste like - a confusion of categories.

I believe a more appropriate way to think about this might be to think of the created world being made from the center out. God the Father in an eternal timeless act of love empties himself into the Son. In that act, the incarnation occurs. The Son simultaneously offers himself back wholly to the Father on the cross as an eternal divine act. The eternal act of mutual self giving explodes outward like a fushion bomb in the Holy Spirit.

Creation springs from this eternal act of the three persons of the Blessed Trinity from the incarnation event outward. In a sense, Christ comes before Adam. Jesus Christ is the absolute center of the physical universe. Had he never lived, nothing would exist. In him, through him, and for him all things exists. Through him all things were made, visible and invisible.

Our own existent too is wholly sustained by the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son.

I don't know if anything I am writing makes any sense to anyone but me.

Peace and Blessings!

Dear Neil, JCecil3, Bill, and Tom:


Thank you. I wasn't insulted, and it is exceedingly easy to misread what the question actually is in the original, hence my clarification. You are always so kind and reserved in comments it would be well-nigh impossible to take offense.


Of the comments, yours was the most help for the analogy given. Along with Tom, I understood the denotation to be quite different from the common usage. But your analogy from the fathers as "heat begotten of light" speaks worlds and makes clear how the begotten might be simultaneously with the begetter.


Thank you. I knew that there was something wrong with my understanding of the word begotten in context; however, such a great deal is made of it with respect to the incarnation in a very precise way, that I wanted to see where it was going.

Dear Bill,

I understand, perhaps incorrectly, the meaning of that phrase in the creed differently. I read it as "begotten" meaning, "true seed of the Father" not made, meaning "a miraculous occurrence as in the pregnancies of Sarah and Elixabeth." I read the article of the creed to affirm true filial relationship in both the divine and human degree. But, I could very well be wrong here as you can see I'm not very strong on theoretical Christology.




At the risk of just retreading what your able commenters here have said already, Jesus' humanity is not 'begotten of the Father before all ages' - as Neil points out, there is no independent hypostasis of the man Jesus. The Son, coeternal with the Father, is indeed 'begotten before all ages,' which is, if I have the right term, a synechdoche for 'from all eternity,' while the Son becomes man in Mary's virgin womb in time, and so is born as Jesus of Nazareth. The creed breaks this down into two parts - the first movement of the article pertains to the eternal begetting and unity of being (homoousias) with the Father, the second movement with his 'descent' from heaven and birth as a fully human child of the Virgin Mary. Chalcedon is, therefore, an affirmation of the Son's eternal, equal divinity with the Father, while at the same time it's an affirmation of the scandal that the humanity of the man Jesus of Nazareth is real, not illusory. Hope that at least builds on the others, and isn't too long-winded.


Maybe someone else will see what I'm trying to say here (which makes perfect sense to me, but God alone knows whom else).

How does light emanate from a flame? The chemical reaction ("burning") produces ("begets") a certain form of radiation. The light I see is different from the burning, and it comes from the burning, but the burning does not precede it; as the candle flame burns, it produces light. The flame will not exist without light.

Likewise, the moon orbits the earth. Why? The moon's velocity/momentum/whatever pulls it away, and the earth's gravity balances that. These two causes are simultaneous; it's not a chronological affair.

Maybe it will help if you think of God begetting the Son, and then the Spirit proceeding from the Father through the Son, in the same way.

My $.02

Dear Thomas,

Thank you, but as I tried to make clear above, that was never in question. I understood that Jesus entered time through the Incarnation at a discrete moment. However, I was a bit befuddled (Until JCecil's analogy above) as to how one is begotten before all time as to divinity. Begetting as it is commonly used implies a beggeter and one begotten upon. However, as two commenters have now said, light and heat are concomittantly "begotten" of one another. Where there's light (except perhaps in certain chemical reactions--and even there the Gibb's Free Energy is changed) there's heat--they go together. Which begets which is a subject for debate, but that one is begotten without a second party is obvious.

Thank you, however, for further clarifying this point. It is always useful to reflect upon these truths and to attempt to get at the heart of them.



Lest we get too clear, don't forget that Jesus wasn't eternally begotten of the Father. He is eternally begotten of the Father. There is no past act in the Godhead. Which suggests that, when we (God willing) enter into full participation in the Divine Life (and remember that through baptism we have already begun a partial but nonetheless true participation in this Life), we will in some sense see the Son being begotten of the Father.

And that, whatever else may be said about it, is way cooler than any other predicted after-life.

Dear Steven - I'm sorry to jump in with a half-baked comment that I hadn't even thought through. As you said in your most recent post, you get to learn how little you really are with this here blogging stuff. Not that you belittled me! Anytime I open my mouth on anything other than, say, TeX or direct verbatim quotes from authorities, I learn that I'm a five-year-old playing with blocks among rocket scientists.

Anymore, though, I relish the news that I'm not all I thought I was, which enjoyment is partly attributable to hanging out with all you smart folks. There's a Catholic mailing list I'm on full of smart folks; I've configured my email app to begin my rare messages to the list with a note to myself: "Don't post! You're too damn stupid!" followed by a quote from a jawdropper of a scholarly dissertation someone once posted casually to the list off the top of his head.

Yes, I'm rambling.

Dear Bill,

I don't believe the response was half-baked. One of the great things about Church Doctrine is that there is enormous depth to it. Even if what I wrote is, in fact true (and I don't say that it is), that does not preclude your interpretation of the matter.

Church Doctrine is not Holy Writ, nevertheless it seems to partake of some of the subtlety, depth, and power of Holy Writ. The multiplicity of correct meaning and the depth of its reach is one of the great gifts of the Catholic Church. That doctrine at once binds and frees is the gift of the Holy Spirit, guardian of the deposit of faith.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 12, 2004 6:57 AM.

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